Posted by Terry on November 30, 2015

How do we find films?

What process do we use to find and select films? How does that process differ from other film festivals? While I will answer the first question in this and subsequent blogs, I can’t answer the second. Even though one could assume that the process of picking the “best” films would be similar among festivals, it varies depending on many things. Do the programmers watch all the submissions? Or does the festival use volunteer prescreeners? How many people watch each submission? What are the judging criteria? Are submissions the only source of films that are considered? Or do the programmers actively search for films that have done well at other festivals and then encourage those filmmakers to submit by granting fee and/or deadline waivers? Those are just a few of the variations relating to process, but what about the individual tastes of the programmers? Is it even possible to be objective when selecting films? If the power of a film can be judged by the emotional impact that it has on viewers, then how can it not be a subjective process?

Our festival started in 2007 as an invitation-only festival. We began to accept submissions for our 2009 festival. The number of submissions grew each year until we reached 625 submissions for our 2014 fest, but even then, only a third of the selections were from submissions: 31 (a 5% acceptance rate) were included in the 90 Official Selections screened that year as part of the total program of 101 films. In February 2014, a new submission platform became available – see FilmFreeway vs Withoutabox and the rest for my blog about it. When we used FilmFreeway for our 2015 fest, the number of submissions skyrocketed: 3,593 submissions on their platform and another 187 through other means for a total of 3,780. It was a huge challenge to handle an increase in submissions of over 500% in one year, especially since I’d already committed to attending four other film festivals: Palm Springs International ShortFest, Toronto International Film Festival, Austin Film Festival, and Whistler Film Festival. Needless to say, we had the largest and best program we’ve ever had: 121 films including 91 Official Selections. This marked the first year that selections from submissions outnumbered any other source for Official Selections: 37 (41%) were selected from 3,780 submissions (an acceptance rate of 1%), 33 (36%) were selected from the 264 films I saw in Palm Springs (12.5% selection rate), 9 (10%) were selected from the 62 films I saw in Austin (14.5% selection rate), and 12 were selected from other sources.

I have attended 9 film festivals over the years: Edmonton International Film Festival, Worldwide Short Film Festival (no longer in existence), Calgary International Film Festival, Palm Springs International ShortFest, Toronto International Film Festival, Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival, Seattle International Film Festival, Austin Film Festival, and Whistler Film Festival. I first went to the Palm Springs International ShortFest in 2009 and it is the only one I’ve attended every year since then. To my knowledge, it’s the largest short film festival in North America. In my opinion, it’s also the best. And yet, Festival Director Darryl Macdonald said in his opening remarks at the 2015 festival that they received 3,400 submissions while we received close to 3,800 at our 2015 fest. How is that possible? We don’t charge a submission fee while they, like most film festivals, do. It is worth noting that the largest short film festival in the world – the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival in France – doesn’t charge a submission fee, however, the submission platform it uses (Short Film Depot) does charge filmmakers 1.5€ to 3€ per submission depending on purchase option. It also charges film festivals 380€ for a 1-year subscription. Since it has the same address as the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival, I assume that the festival developed it as their own submission platform and then made it available as a submission platform for other festivals as well. Therefore, it would be wrong to assume that they don’t make money on submissions even though they don’t charge a submission fee.

So why don’t we charge a submission fee? I touched on this subject when I wrote How can a filmmaker be so many things when it comes to film festivals? on December 3, 2014. At that time, we had received 2,847 submissions. This year, we are on pace to receive more than 4,000 submissions. As mentioned in that blog, we treat filmmakers as valued suppliers. We put out a Call for Submissions and it makes no sense to charge our prospective suppliers for submitting their “products” for our consideration. And for those suppliers we select, we pay screening fees which is a way of sharing the ticket sales we receive with the filmmakers whose films created the entertainment that we sold to our audience members.

The next blog on our Programming Process will be Part II – How do we evaluate films?


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